Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Scientific researchers long ago discovered what many already thought was true: humans and animals think very differently. Sheep, for instance, have limited cognitive ability, compared to human beings, but recent studies have shown that sheep can recognize and distinguish between up to fifty human faces.
Ancient shepherds in the time of Jesus had no access to any scientific studies, but they knew, just from their general experience, that sheep recognized their rightful shepherds and were leery of people they did not recognize.
But not only do humans and animals think differently; there are different patterns of thinking among human beings. Research has revealed that many of us think primarily in words; some of us think primarily in patterns; and some of us think primarily in pictures.
Reaching out to others, thinking and seeing as they do, was an essential part of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus was not afraid to reach out with words to those who understood words, or to use patterns of words, such as in the many parallel examples in the Sermon on the Mount, with those who saw the world in that fashion.
But Jesus often spoke in pictures, in parables that spoke very clearly. The Gospel of John is very word-oriented. In the opening poem about the Word made flesh, John uses words to describe the meaning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ nature and salvation. In the long discourse before Jesus’ arrest, in dialogues with others, John gives us Jesus’ words to describe them, as well.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself in picture terms as the gate for the sheep. That image of Jesus as the entrance to a haven of safety, security, and good things suggests the comfort of the gate, a picture that would have made sense to the sheep.
The sheep are aware of audio cues as well, according to Jesus. Things have to sound right, not just look right. That’s why sheep are able to sense something wrong in the thieves, who do not look right, who do not match their image or picture of what safety truly is, and whose voices are not familiar at all to them.
If you are listening to this, today, the odds are pretty good that you are here because you are not only used to the experience of coming to church, but you also think of it as important to your well-being. How often have you heard someone say “When I miss church, it feels like there’s something missing in my life!”?
For us, the audio and visual cues that go with our worship are effective -- they work for us! We feel comfort. We know we are entering into the gates of safety, into the place of sanctuary from the dangers and snares of this world.
But we need to think like sheep. Or perhaps I should say, we need to think like the unchurched. That is not meant as a negative comment. It refers simply to those who have never entered the doors to a church, or perhaps those whose bad experiences so long ago have made them suspicious about what might lie inside the church.
Reaching out to others means thinking and seeing as they do. Thinking like someone who may never have attended church likely ought to be an essential part of our ministry.
We may be used to thinking in religious terms. The language of the church, the special jargon or terminology we use among one another, may make perfect sense to us, but may not speak to those who are searching for Jesus, whose life experiences may be very different from ours.
But, you may protest, we’re a friendly church. We’re open to everyone. That may be true, but to one of the sheep of Jesus’ flock, one of those for whom Jesus died, do we seem open and welcoming? Or do we seem intimidating? But in order to think like sheep, let’s not talk, for a moment in terms of church. Let’s talk in terms of restaurants. Think of the most recent new restaurant that you tried.
Why did you go there? Did you know the owner? Did you know someone who worked there? Did someone you know recommend it? Did you go in the company of friends? Were you nervous when you entered?
Were you unsure? Was the menu confusing? Did you have any idea what sort of food to expect? Did it feel as if everyone belonged but you? Were you so filled with anxiety that you were ready to get up and walk out the door?
Perhaps the last new restaurant you visited was part of a chain. So while you may not have visited this particular franchise in this particular town, you’d had enough positive experiences in the past to be able to risk going into a new restaurant you’d never entered before with confidence.
But now think of the last time you visited a restaurant in a distant city without a clue of what you’d find, whom you would see, how you would be treated, or if you were even welcome.
That’s what it’s like for some people who enter a church because they feel the need to be fed by God. They may be going to a familiar chain, the local franchise of a denomination with which they feel comfortable.
However, even there they might feel trepidation. But how about someone who has realized their lives are falling apart and Jesus Christ might just have the answer? They have steeled themselves and maybe even forced themselves to come into an unfamiliar place.
How will they be treated? How will you treat them? Will they see one head bend to another as one person whispers as loud as shouting, “Who’s that?!” and is answered with “I don’t know!” Do we look right? Do we sound right?
This is where a friendly greeting can be most welcome. If we are truly friendly people, if we’re ready in the name of Jesus to welcome others, we need to be ready to guide people through what can be a bewildering maze. Jesus not only called himself the Gate; he called himself the Good Shepherd. We need to be shepherds ourselves.
One of the most famous shepherds who ever lived was a woman named Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in Maryland, she escaped from the cruelties of slavery in 1849. Nevertheless, she returned to Maryland 13 times, at great risk to herself, to lead over 200 others to freedom along what was sometimes called “The Underground Railroad.”
Some people compared her to Moses, who led God’s people to freedom, but others considered her, like Jesus, a good shepherd. She knew how frightened they could be, how a runaway slave never knew if a friendly face might conceal malicious intent. One of the landmarks she selected to guide slaves to freedom could not be altered or misused by her enemies.
It became a welcome sight, a sign that the gate to freedom lay ahead and that runaway slaves were on the right track: It was the constellation in the northern sky that is sometimes called the Big Dipper, but which she called the “Drinking Gourd.”
Her watchword was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” The stars in the gourd/dipper point to the North Star, and north, of course, was the gate to freedom.
And there was a simple song to go with it: “Follow the drinking gourd. Follow the drinking gourd. For the old man is waiting, For to carry you to freedom, If you follow the drinking gourd.”
A simple song. A simple smile. A simple greeting. Any of these can be the gateway for someone who is searching for the peace that passes understanding, and the joy that waits with Jesus.
Let us, like Jesus, filled with love for those who are struggling to find their way, welcome newcomers in a way that is comfortable, familiar and compassionate. For surely this is the gate of God’s grace, mercy, and peace! Surely here is safety, security, and home! Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus forever. Amen.